Are cheats killing sport?

Breaking the rules is not a new phenomenon and it has yet to dampen our appetite for the sports that we love.

Duleep Allirajah

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Is cheating ruining sport? The lament for a lost Golden Age of sporting fair play is a recurring modern motif. But while there is lamenting aplenty, there’s precious little evidence of ruin.

The case for the prosecution can be summarised like this: sport isn’t just a set of rules, it is underpinned by a moral contract – something we call ‘integrity’ – which ensures that the contest is fair. If you cheat you break this contract, you damage the integrity of sport and traduce its reputation. As Guardian columnist Marina Hyde puts it: ‘[T]hey [cheats] ruin it for everyone else – participants, spectators – in many and diverse ways. They ruin it for years, for everyone. They turn expert observers into pained inquisitors; they make kids who should be dreamers into cynics; they retain the power to turn age-old human contests into an irrelevance.’

So, where’s the evidence that sport is going to hell in a handcart? A series of high-profile cheating controversies have rocked the sporting world in recent years: Pakistani cricketers jailed for spot fixing; Jamaican sprinters failing drugs tests; snooker star John Higgins suspended for match-fixing; the Calciopoli scandal in Italian football which led to Juventus being stripped of two Serie A titles; a series of high-profile ‘simulation’ incidents in English football, involving Luis Suárez, Ashley Young and Gareth Bale; and, unquestionably the most damaging scandal of all, Lance Armstrong fessing up to doping and being stripped of his seven Tour de France titles.

Cheating scandals abound, but does it follow that sport is ruined? I don’t think so. Firstly, we should ask ourselves: ‘ruined for whom?’ Just because sanctimonious hacks and phone-in show saddos bemoan the corrosion of the sporting ethos, it doesn’t mean that the rest of us have become disenchanted with sport. If sport were ruined we’d expect to see deserted stadiums, fans ripping up their season tickets and TV viewers cancelling their Sky subscriptions. The reality, however, is that Britain remains resolutely sports-obsessed.

Let’s look at Britain’s most popular sport, football. In this country, we tend to frown on diving and feigning injury. It’s not manly or British to roll around crying like a girl. Diving is arguably much more commonplace in the cosmopolitan melting pot of the Premier League. But, by any measure, whether it is TV audiences or matchday attendances, public affection for our national game appears undimmed. Premiership stadiums are packed to the gills and millions more watch live football on pay TV. Although simulation is conflated with cheating in this country, I’d argue that it’s just a form of gamesmanship. It’s bending the rules to gain an advantage, but it’s hardly comparable to match-rigging. If we consider the more serious charge of match-fixing, British football is remarkably clean. The last notable scandal in England was in 1964, which led to eight professional footballers being jailed. Football’s popularity wasn’t seriously affected by that scandal so it’s hard to see how a few theatrical belly flops will dampen our enthusiasm for our national game now.

If we look at other sports which have been shaken by doping or match-fixing scandals you find no clear evidence of a causal link between cheating and public disenchantment. Athletics has supposedly been scarred by a long history of positive drug tests from Ben Johnson to Marion Jones. But you wouldn’t know it judging by the overwhelming public demand for tickets at the London 2012 Games. For one long delirious summer it seemed everyone in Britain was gripped by Olympic fever.

How about cricket? Have the ball-tampering and match-fixing scandals of recent years adversely affected the public’s appetite for the game? On the contrary, the T20 format is positively booming and attracting new audiences while Test matches still draw big crowds. It is true that county cricket in England and equivalent longer-format competitions abroad have been in decline for years, but this is for reasons other than match-fixing. There’s no evidence either that the Pakistan spot-fixing scandal has dampened cricket fever in the Indian subcontinent.

What about cycling, a sport which has suffered considerable reputational damage as a consequence of the Lance Armstrong doping revelation? Former Olympic decathlon champion Daley Thompson, writing in the Daily Mail last year, said that Lance Armstrong has not only left his own reputation in tatters but had damaged sport in general. ‘What we want to see is endeavour by athletes; how far they can push themselves. If they can fly’, wrote Thompson. ‘It’s something pure, not artificial like Armstrong’s performances. He has not just cheated cycling, he has cheated sport.’ On the face of it, there is some evidence of the declining popularity of the Tour de France. A 2010 survey found that just 44 per cent of the French public say they are interested in the Tour, compared to 51 per cent in 2007.

Certainly, doping scandals damage cycling’s reputation but the Lance Armstrong case isn’t the first drug scandal in the sport. Riders have been taking performance-enhancing drugs since the Tour began in 1903. And they have been failing drugs tests since these were introduced in 1966. From the death of British rider Tom Simpson in 1967 to the Festina scandal in 1998, cyclists have been perpetually under suspicion. I’d argue that the declining popularity of the Tour is largely a result of other long-term cultural shifts in French society. Young people in France no longer behave like their grandparents. They are drinking less wine, eating more fast food, watching more football and turning away from cycling – 72 per cent of under-35s surveyed in 2010 said they had no interest in the Tour.

With the possible exception of WWE wrestling, which is widely regarded as rigged, there’s no evidence that cheating is killing sport. Indeed, ever since the rules of modern sports were drawn up, people have tried to bend or break them. There is no mythical Golden Age when everyone played by the rules. Victorian cricketer WG Grace refused to walk. Billy Meredith took a bribe to fix a football match. Fred Lorz hitched a lift during an Olympic marathon. The Chicago White Sox threw the 1919 World Series. I could go on. The point is that cheating isn’t a modern affliction. We’ve always had cheats in sport. These scandals leave a sour taste in the mouth at the time. But they don’t kill our appetite for sport altogether.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside. He is speaking at the debate Is cheating ruining sport? at the Battle of Ideas festival on 20 October.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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